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Davis Schneiderman

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How My Father's Brain Cancer Taught Me to Parent

Posted: 12/15/11 03:38 PM ET

While my wife and I were waiting years to adopt our first daughter from China, my father became someone else. It happened in the space of a few hours.

In December 2005, he felt unwell and proceeded to walk out of his St. Louis office. He fumbled for his car key -- although he held only air -- and then, foiled in his attempt to leave, settled on a couch in the lobby.

For five hours.

During this time, a brain tumor -- Glioblastoma multiforme -- pressed hard against his skull, writing over large portions of the person he had been that morning.

He unlearned to talk. By the time a colleague discovered him at the end of the day, he was replacing common words with nonsensical babble. Although this extreme aphasia subsided with large doses of anti-inflammatory drugs, his new reality -- a startling one for my entire family -- was preparing me to become a parent in equally unexpected ways.

Language Acquisition: Common words escape my father. He can no longer identify a "flashlight" or "necktie" by name. Long gone are his crackling diatribes on everything from the intricacies of Civil War battles (he was once a social studies teacher) to the vagaries of international business (and later, a finance executive). Sometimes, he makes inadvertent jokes that seem like sad facsimiles of his former wit: "I am laughing your ass off."

Strangely, the way my daughters would soon mimic words (and sometimes transpose pronouns) not yet linked for them to the tactile world reminds me of the language deficits my father still experiences. The patience I must use to converse with the person he has become offered a blueprint for teaching my daughters to bind words to things, and reminded me of the slippery terrain of such a project.

Eating and Dosing: My father began a regimen of pills that would make the most extreme speed freak seem like a rank amateur. He dutifully-though-often-fitfully accepted the near-constant handfuls with the occasional ill grace that might befit a child receiving a bowl of peas instead of honey.

The lesson: Serve everything with a smile. This works especially well in the period where children will try -- and then like -- almost anything. After many smiling servings at home, my youngest daughter, at 2, went in ecstasy at the sight of cauliflower at a farmer's market. She demanded that I immediately take her home and cook the cruciferous delight. My vegetable-whisperer/Cheshire grin drew no shortage of wondrous looks from the other parents holding tomatoes and apples.

Repetition: Remember how the Teletubbies were incessantly chanting "Again!" when something amused their globular forms? Well, my father is tuned into CNN and MSNBC for most of his waking hours. He does this for the same reason children love to read the same book or watch the same episode of "Curious George" until their eyes glaze over into a simian fog. He can't follow the other shows, he tells me, but the news keeps repeating things over and over--and he can eventually figure out what is happening. I would have never understood not only the pleasure of repetition but also its necessity... were it not for my father glued continually to the 24-hour news cycle.

Beyond these useful object lessons, my father's condition has taught me an additional parenting skill. In this, he is not the model for how my children would act, but a model for how I should strive to behave.

When I was a teenager, my Brooklyn-bred dad was an often-traveling-yet-strong presence in the home. He monopolized conversation with a steady stream of judgments on the inadequacies and inefficiencies of modern life. His character reminded me of the backlash political rhetoric of the 1970s, except that as a liberal, his targets were never the gains of "minorities" or women, but the absurdity of waiting more than a few minutes for a menu at a restaurant, or the aggressive idiocy of someone fighting him for a parking spot. His patience, and here I picture him in his chain-smoking 1980s incarnation, seemed as volatile as the burning embers that populated our house, our car, my brain.

Now, humbled by brain cancer, and stripped of so many of the qualities that provided his sense of himself as confident, intelligent, and in control, my father can sit for long stretches with others in complete silence, smiling broadly. He does so as my two daughters dance around him or rub his beard (he can no longer shave). I struggle, as he used to, with keeping silent, yet I have learned from his inadvertent example.

When I share quiet with my children, I give them the space they need to express their developing personalities without anyone, even their most able guide, pressing too heavily against their developing imaginations.

These days, I sometimes sit with my father, silently, amazed at how he has completely transformed. And how I am now a parent of two constantly transforming daughters. And how my father -- still strong -- battling what for many patients is a death sentence, manages to smile widely as his granddaughters swirl around him.

And it is in this silence that my father and I share something important, something infinitely beautiful and profound, something well beyond the words that he can no longer remember -- for all the ease in which they once rolled of his tongue -- were ever able to tell me.

 

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